As NATO opens its summit Wednesday, leaders face decisions about countries far afield from NATO'S original membership: President Bush is calling for them to do more in Afghanistan, and to do more to bring in former Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia. Russia doesn't like that idea, but President Bush says it should realize the Cold War is over.
He may be a lame duck president, unpopular in Europe for the war in Iraq, but he didn't seem to shy away from dealing with some of the most troublesome issues in the trans-Atlantic alliance. Speaking in an ornate bank in Romania's capital Bucharest, President Bush told NATO members that they should give ex-Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia a path toward membership. He argued that would help them consolidate democratic gains and cement their independence.
"NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the membership action plan, and NATO membership must remain open to all of Europe's democracies that seek it," the president said.
France has said it will not give a green light to Ukraine and Georgia because it would upset the balance of power between Europe and Russia. White House officials said only this could be a clarifying moment for NATO.
The alliance already has to decide on three new members this year — Albania, Croatia and Macedonia, though Greece may block the third over a name dispute.
On Afghanistan, President Bush says NATO must finish the fight. France is expected to send 1,000 troops to eastern Afghanistan, freeing up U.S. troops to head south and help out the Canadian contingent as it requested. The president said the alliance can't afford to cede ground to the Taliban and al-Qaida.
"If we do not defeat the terrorists in Afghanistan, we will face them on our own soil. And innocent civilians in Europe and North America would then pay the price," he said.
The president said NATO's priority should be to fight al-Qaida. He lobbied for one of his priorities, as well: setting up a missile defense system to guard against potential attacks — especially from Iran, which he accused of trying to develop a missile that could strike Europe. He said he would continue to try to get Russia to acquiesce.
"I will reiterate that the missile defense capabilities we are developing are not designed to defend against Russia — just as the new NATO we are building is not designed to defend against Russia. The Cold War is over. Russia is not our enemy," he said.
Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter — who was in the audience Wednesday — said the most important part of the trip will likely be at the end, when President Bush meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, to try to leave a better relationship for their successors. As for the president's speech, Hunter gives him high marks for recognizing NATO's importance at his last summit of the alliance.
"The rest of the world is looking for American leadership, and I think he's setting it up nicely for the next president — whichever of the three becomes president — because they are going to have a lot of work to do in common," Hunter said.
The list of NATO missions is getting longer: fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, training Iraqis, protecting Kosovo and helping the United Nations in Darfur, Sudan. President Bush said NATO is no longer a static alliance focused on defending Europe from a Soviet tank invasion; it is now an expeditionary alliance sending troops around the world.